Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Herbert goes to war

Albania’s Greatest Friend: Aubrey Herbert and the Making of Modern Albania is being published today (at least according to Amazon’s website) by I B Tauris, a leading publisher of non-fiction books on history, politics and international relations. The book is based on the diaries and papers of Aubrey Herbert, a young aristocrat - said to be the inspiration for Sandy Arbuthnut, the fictional hero created by John Buchan - who travelled extensively to Albania before the First World War, and did much to help it become an independent nation. Some of Herbert’s First World War diaries are freely available online.

Herbert was born at Highclere, near Newbury, Berkshire, in 1880. He was the second son of the 4th Earl of Carnarvon, a landowner, British cabinet minister and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. After being schooled at Eton and studying history at Balliol College, Oxford, he became an (unpaid) honorary attaché in the diplomatic service, firstly in Tokyo and then in Constantinople. Subsequently, he travelled extensively, mostly in the Turkish provinces, learning to speak half a dozen languages. In particular he became a passionate advocate of Albanian independence, visiting the country many times.

In 1910, Herbert married Mary Vesey, daughter of Viscount de Vesci, and they would have four children, the youngest of whom married Eveyln Waugh. In 1911, Herbert became a Conservative Member of Parliament for the Yeovil Division of Somerset, a constituency which he held till his death. With the outbreak of the First World War, Herbert, despite poor eyesight, obtained a commission in the Irish Guards. He was wounded and taken prisoner in France, but escaped. Subsequently, he worked for military intelligence, involved in the Gallipoli Campaign, among others, and in negotiations with the Turks. In the last months of the war he was head of the English Mission attached to the Italian Army in Albania, and held the temporary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Herbert was twice offered, unofficially, the throne of Albania, once before the war when he declined, and once after, when circumstances conspired against him. However, his efforts are considered to have helped Albania become an independent nation in 1913, and to its becoming a member of the League of Nations in 1920. He died young, from blood poisoning after a dental operation in 1923. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia and a website about Exmoor National Park. It is widely assumed, says Wikipedia, that Herbert was the inspiration for the character Sandy Arbuthnot, a hero in several John Buchan novels.

While abroad, Herbert was an inveterate diary keeper, and some of his diary material has recently been collated and edited by Bejtullah Destani and Jason Tomes for Albania’s Greatest Friend: Aubrey Herbert and the Making of Modern Albania: Diaries and Papers 1904-1923. The book - which according to Amazon is due out today - is being published by I B Tauris.

Here is Tauris’s publicity for the book: ‘Impeccably aristocratic and eccentric in a uniquely English tradition, Aubrey Herbert was at first sight an incongruous champion of Albanian nationalism, to say the least. Tall, slender and slightly stooped, with a moustache and heavily lidded eyes, Herbert wore a monocle and had white patches in his hair caused by an attack of alopoecia in 1911. Within England - let alone abroad - he cut a colourful figure.

But Herbert was also an acclaimed linguist, intrepid traveller and an outspoken and independent thinker, who became enthralled by the Balkans on his first visit to the region in 1904 as honorary attache at the British Embassy in Constantinople. From that time until his death in 1923, he was indefatigable in campaigning for the Albanian cause. He returned frequently to the country and gained respect as an expert on the region, even being honoured with repeated requests that he assume the Albanian throne. Albania’s Greatest Friend charts Herbert’s involvement with Albania over the course of his life, in his own words, through his own extensive diaries and letters.

It paints an authoritative portrait not just of a remarkable Englishman but also sheds fresh light on the wider Albanian national movement and a fascinating period in European history.’

As early as 1919, though, Herbert had published Mons, Anzac & Kut (Hutchinson & Co) based on, and quoting from, his diaries, with an introduction by Desmond MacCarthy, a literary critic working for the New Statesman. The full text of this book is available online at the Great War Primary Documents Archive.

Here is Herbert’s own preface:

‘Journals, in the eyes of their author, usually require an introduction of some kind, which, often, may be conveniently forgotten. The reader is invited to turn to this one if, after persevering through the pages of the diary, he wishes to learn the reason of the abrupt changes and chances of war that befell the writer. They are explained by the fact that his eyesight did not allow him to pass the necessary medical tests. He was able, through some slight skill, to evade these obstacles in the first stage of the war; later, when England had settled down to routine, they defeated him, as far as the Western Front was concerned. He was fortunately compensated for this disadvantage by a certain knowledge of the East, that sent him in various capacities to different fronts, often at critical times. It was as an Interpreter that the writer went to France. After a brief imprisonment, it was as an Intelligence Officer that he went to Egypt, the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia.

The first diary was dictated in hospital from memory and rough notes made on the Retreat from Mons. For the writing of the second diary, idle hours were provided in the Dardanelles between times of furious action. The third diary, which deals with the fall of Kut, was written on the Fly boats of the River Tigris. [. . .]

This diary claims to be no more than a record of great and small events, a chronicle of events within certain limited horizons - a retreat, a siege and an attack. Writing was often hurried and difficult, and the diary was sometimes neglected for a period. If inaccuracies occur, the writer offers sincere apologies.’

And here are a few diary extracts, culled from the text in Mons, Anzac & Kut.

23 April 1915
‘I have just seen the most wonderful procession of ships I shall ever see. In the afternoon we left for the outer harbour. The wind was blowing; there was foam upon the sea and the air of the island was sparkling. With the band playing and flags flying, we steamed past the rest of the fleet. Cheers went from one end of the harbour to the other. Spring and summer met. Everybody felt it more than anything that had gone before.

After we had passed the fleet, the pageant of the fleet passed us. First the Queen Elizabeth, immense, beautiful lines, long, like a snake, straight as an arrow. This time there was silence. It was grim and very beautiful. We would rather have had the music and the cheers . . . This morning instructions were given to the officers and landing arrangements made. We leave at 1.30 to-night. The Australians are to land first. This they should do to-night. Then we land. . . Naval guns will have to cover our advance, and the men are to warned that the naval fire is very accurate. They will need some reassuring if the fire is just over their heads. The 29th land at Helles, the French in Asia near Troy. This is curious, as they can't support us or we them. the Naval Division goes north and makes a demonstration . . . The general opinion is that very many boats must be sunk from the shore. Having got ashore, we go on to a rendezvous. We have no native guides. . . The politicians are very unpopular.’

25 April 1915
‘I got up at 6.30. Thoms, who shared my cabin, had been up earlier. There was a continuous roll of thunder from the south. Opposite to us the land rose steeply in cliffs and hills covered with the usual Mediterranean vegetation. The crackle of rifles sounded and ceased in turns. . . Orders were given to us to start at 8.30 a.m. . . The tows were punctual. . . We were ordered to take practically nothing but rations. I gave my sleeping-bag to Kyriakidis, the old Greek interpreter whom I had snatched from the Arcadia, and took my British warm and my Burberry. . . The tow was unpleasantly open to look at; there was naturally no shelter of any kind. We all packed in, and were towed across the shining sea towards the land fight. . . We could see some still figures lying on the beach to our left, one or two in front. Some bullets splashed round.

As we were all jumping into the sea to flounder ashore, I heard cries from the sergeant at the back of the tow. He said to me: “These two men refuse to go ashore.” I turned and saw Kristo Keresteji and Yanni of Ayo Strati with mesmerized eyes looking at plops tha the bullets made in the water, and with their minds evidently fixed on the Greek equivalent of “Home, Sweet Home.” They were, however, pushed in, and we all scrambled on to that unholy land. The word was then, I thought rather unnecessarily, passed that we were under fire.’

26 April 1915
‘At 5 o’clock yesterday our artillery began to land. It’s a very rough country; the Mediterranean macchia everywhere, and steep, winding valleys. We slept on a ledge a few feet above the beech . . . Firing went on all night. In the morning it was very cold, and we were all soaked. The Navy, it appeared, had landed us in the wrong place. This made the Army extremely angry, though as things turned out it was the one bright spot. Had we landed anywhere else, we should have been wiped out.’

28 April 1915
‘I got up at 4 a.m. this morning, after a fine, quiet night, and examined a Greek deserter from the Turkish Army. He said many would desert if they did not fear for their lives. The New Zealanders spare their prisoners.

Last night, while he was talking to me, Colonel C. was hit by a bit of shell on his hat. He stood quite still while a man might count three, wondering if he was hurt. He then stooped down and picked it up. At 8 p.m. last night there was furious shelling in the gully. Many men and mules hit. General Godley was in the Signalling Office, on the telephone, fairly under cover. I was outside with Pinwell, and got grazed, just avoiding the last burst. Their range is better. Before this they have been bursting the shrapnel too high. It was after 4 p.m. Their range improved so much. My dugout was shot through five minutes before I went there. So was Shaw’s . . .’

11 a.m. All firing except from Helles has ceased. Things look better. The most the men can do is to hang on. General Godley has been very fine. The men know it.

4.30 p.m. Turks suddenly reported to have mounted huge howitzer on our left flank, two or three miles away. We rushed all the ammunition off the beach, men working like ants, complete silence and furious work. We were absolutely enfiladed, and they could have pounded us, mules and machinery, to pulp, or driven us into the gully and up the hill, cutting us off from our water and at the same time attacking us with shrapnel. The ships came up and fired on the new gun, and proved either that it was a dummy or had moved, or had been knocked out. It was a cold, wet night.’

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